Female Doctors and Surgeons of the Early Church

Not having ever had ambitions to physick other folks, I don’t know much about the history of women as doctors and surgeons in the Greco-Roman world. But one of those chance browses through Google Books has introduced me to some of these ladies.

There’s an awesome legend about Agnodice, the first Athenian woman to become a doctor. She was sick and tired of the way respectable Athenian women, sequestered in their own quarters in the house and seeing only their close kinsmen, didn’t get any medical help except from midwives, who were untrained in the latest medical science. So she “dressed in men’s array” and went to study with a renowned (but old and unobservant) doctor, Hierophilos. Once trained, she began her practice by continuing to dress as a man (because no respectable woman would be out in the streets), and then getting sick women to let her in, after revealing to them the secret of her sex.

Well, of course the jealous Athenian men got kinda suspicious of this ‘guy’ sneaking into all their houses. They caught ‘him’ and were about to string him up, when the women told them he was a she. Which just freaked the Athenian men more. So they dragged her off to court (and only men could serve on the city jury). But all the women of Athens left their seclusion and stormed the court, pointing out that their men were killing them by not letting them get medical treatment. Sanity triumphed, and it became legal and respectable for women to become doctors and surgeons for other women.

(Dang, I don’t care if this is true or not. It’s epic! It needs to be a movie!)

Greek male physicians in Rome were mostly freed slaves; they faced serious social handicaps. Ironically, female Greek physicians seem to have been better received by Roman women. A good number of Jewish women apparently also had medical knowledge, so it wasn’t surprising that when Christianity began, it included women who did doctoring.

St. Theodosia, martyr under Diocletian and mother of St. Procopius the martyr, was apparently said in some sources to be a doctor and surgeon.

But there are other ladies with more historical evidence behind them. St. Fabiola, a convert from the noble family of the Fabians, was a doctor. She also founded the first hospital in Rome and perhaps the Western world (though maybe the Alexandrians were first), making it free to the poor. (So that’s who Cardinal Wiseman wrote his Roman novel about!) She died Dec. 27, 399, and was eulogized by St. Jerome.

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarce breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid. I know of many wealthy and devout persons who, unable to overcome their natural repugnance to such sights, perform this work of mercy by the agency of others, giving money instead of personal aid. I do not blame them and am far from construing their weakness of resolution into a want of faith. While however I pardon such squeamishness, I extol to the skies the enthusiastic zeal of a mind that is above it. A great faith makes little of such trifles….”

St. Nicerata/Nicarete was a physician, and was said to have cured St. John Chrysostom of some kind of horrible indigestion or stomach trouble. She was famed for curing many whom other doctors could not (so there’s some hope for Dr. House). As a consecrated virgin she was also known for her humility and unambitiousness, refusing to be made a deaconess or abbess despite St. John Chrysostom’s urgings. When he got exiled by the Empress Eudokia, Nicarete left Constantinople rather than have to acknowledge the new guy, Arsacius. Her date and place of death are not known, but she was pretty old by then. Sozomen seems to have known her personally.

If anybody knows more examples, I’d like to hear them.

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One response to “Female Doctors and Surgeons of the Early Church

  1. Lucia Rosa

    Wow, I’ll have to remember some of these for All Saints Day! Our parish school always hosts a costume party…

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